Thursday, January 31, 2013

UK politics: falling apart

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With our very necessary focus on European Union issues, it is easy to lose sight of other events, no matter how important they are. That is the fate of the specialist, but it is one which must be guarded against. What we might treat as "noises off" can well have a significant effect on our obsession, the EU referendum.

One such was Tuesday's vote on constituency boundaries, and the reduction of the number of MPs from 650 to 600. The combined effect of that – in throwing out the proposed measures – was to make the election of Labour that much more certain, giving Miliband a built-in cushion of 20 seats before the first leaflet has been dropped through letter boxes. 

No one will disagree on this that the electoral system has now been skewed. With the shenanigans over postal votes – in a system that is also crying out for reform – the British electoral system is acquiring more than a few of the characteristics of a banana republic, ensuring that the next election will be anything but fair and free. 

It is hardly remarkable, therefore, that one of our better parliamentary correspondents, Quentin Letts, was outraged. "Watching our MPs on Tuesday", he writes today in The Daily Mail:
I felt no longer as though I was in noble Westminster, "mother" to so many other democratic assemblies. I am sorry to say it felt more like being at a third world parliament, the plaything of one of those former Soviet states run by thick-necked ex-Communist thugs.
In Britain, he goes on, "we have long flattered ourselves that we play by the rules. In the Commons on Tuesday, the rules were blatantly broken. In the 23 years, on and off, I have been reporting Parliament, I have not felt so disgusted by our political class".

Letts is quite clearly outraged: "The behaviour of Mr Miliband, Mr Clegg and their MPs is worse than cash-for-questions or the expenses scandal", he adds "Those were fuelled by small-minded greed. This is the naked abuse of parliamentary principle. This, I am afraid, is anti-democratic theft".

Sadly we could say the same thing of the insistence of our political class over our membership of the European Union, and yesterday's debate on "Europe" was in its own way just as offensive as the to event to which Letts takes such exception. 

There, you had MPs indulging themselves in a fatuous, ill-informed debate, not in the least reflecting the concerns of the people who elected them, rehearsing the same tired-old mantras. The debate was an insult to the very concept of democratic principles, without passion or fire. Lazy, disinterested MPs going through a sham ritual of debate without the first attempt to engage in the issues and get themselves properly informed. 

What Letts reports of the Tuesday vote, however, is the lack of outrage inside and outside the House to what in fact is blatant cheating. Similarly, we see a lack of response to the lacklustre performance of our MPs yesterday.  But what was there to react to? It was a debate hardly worth reporting (and many newspapers haven't bothered). 

Unfortunately, the two issues are conjoined. Kate Hoey in the debate yesterday felt certain that Miliband would soon fall into line and before the general election commit to an EU referendum. But, if the Labour leader feels he can win the election on the basis of rigged constituency boundaries, he will most certainly be less inclined to give us a vote on the EU. 

If he cheats us, though, the pressure will not go away, and nor will the contempt. The British population may be slow to anger, and very slow to realise what is going on, but it is getting so bad that even Iain Dale has noticed something amiss. 

When the chattering classes fall out of love with politics, one suspects that the centre cannot hold for that much longer.